This article examines our selection of plum varieties, continuing the short series of orchard related posts. We have various plums and gages growing around the border fence of the kitchen garden and being gradually developed as fans: Coe’s Golden Drop, Kirke’s Blue, Reine Claude Violette, Oullin’s Gage, Transparent Gage, and Bryanston Gage. These have been slow to develop, and will not bear much fruit for some time. Eventually, though, I suspect they will bear plenty of fruit. Nonetheless, in our mixed orchard I would still like to plant one plum, one gage, and one damson, which will give plenty of fruit for jam, compotes, and so on.
Unlike with the pears, the selection of varieties was, for me, entirely straightforward. One plum tree that we always love, and have grown in the gardens of both of our previous homes, is Victoria. Some modern authors do not rate Victoria as a dessert fruit, but I completely disagree. When fully ripened it is absolutely delicious; succulent and honeyed, approaching the richness of a fine gage, and so moreish that a basket of ripe fruit is not going to last very long. Particularly ripe fruit does tend to attract the interest of wasps; I remember that my dad and I would search the Victoria plum tree for those fruits being eaten by the wasps, as these were the most ripe and delicious specimens.
Victoria is undoubtedly the quintessential English plum, a reliable and heavy bearer in our experience, and I have certainly not tasted anything better amongst supermarket offerings, and home grown specimens, picked at the height of their perfection, are markedly better, in my view, than the bullets typically presented at the supermarket, which never seem to achieve quite the same richness of flavour. Perhaps when Kirke’s Blue or Coe’s Golden Drop finally start to bear some fruit, I might have to re-evaluate my opinion, but I believe Victoria will always rate, with me, as a top class fruit.
Robert Hogg describes Victoria as “very juicy, sweet, and pleasantly flavoured”, not exactly the highest praise, and refers to it as a culinary plum. It is, of course, a culinary plum par excellence, producing, for example, a beautifully coloured and delicious jam, and benefitting from a small and free stone. Victoria is said to offer poor disease resistance, being susceptible to such diseases as silverleaf and canker. Thin and brittle growth is prone to breaking, especially when overburdened with unthinned fruit. Strangely, though, Victoria does appear to be easy to grow, its heavy cropping habit and reasonable vigour seemingly overcoming whatever else may cause problems. The RHS would seem to concur, having awarded Victoria an AGM in 1993. Whilst I generally look for something a little out of the ordinary, Victoria is widely cultivated, both commercially and as a garden specimen, but in this case I am very happy to make an exception.
Gages are named after Sir William Gage, who is credited with their introduction from France, where they are known as Reine Claude, sometime before 1725. The distinction between gages and plums is not at all clear, and, although most gages are green to yellow in colour, there are red to violet gages, as there are yellow plums. Nonetheless, it is amongst the gages that one can find some of the richest and most delicious fruits. When selecting the gages for the kitchen garden, we had already thought of the possibility of planting an orchard. Thus, the fairly local variety, Bryanston Gage, was substituted at the last minute for what must surely be the definitive gage – the Old Greengage – leaving this variety for planting in the orchard. There may be more reliable croppers, but nothing quite compares with the richness of flavour of the Old Greengage, widely regarded as perhaps the finest flavoured of all plums. If one were more limited in space, a more reliable alternative might possibly be considered, but in all likelihood we will have more fruit than we know what to do with.
Robert Hogg describes the flesh as “greenish yellow, tender, melting, and very juicy, with a rich, sugary, and most delicious flavour” and “one of the richest flavoured of all plums”. Interestingly, Hogg suggests that the greengage was known in this country for at least a century before William Gage brought specimens from France, being previously introduced from Italy. Writing in 1831, George Lindley states that this is “without exception, the finest Plum in England”, and, interestingly, suggests that “when grown as a healthy standard, and fully exposed to the sun, although not so large, is much richer than when produced against a wall”.
Damsons, often found in native hedgerows, are somewhat astringent, although particularly ripe fruits may be eaten fresh. The fruit is small, and the stone not readily removed. They do, though, make a particularly rich and delicious jam. In our previous home, we had a small, straggly specimen of some unknown variety that produced very small but quite sweet and delicious fruits. Planting a damson, unless in a hedgerow environment, is probably best for those with plenty of space. With more limited space, there are other fruit trees that produce, in many ways, better and more versatile fruits, although damsons tend to make a smaller tree than plums, with rather straggly growth. Nonetheless, in the context of a mixed orchard of any reasonable size, there is probably a place for one or more damsons. Amongst available cultivars, Shropshire Prune is a classic damson and a very old variety indeed. It was awarded an AGM by the RHS in 1998.
Fruit identification images are reproduced with permission from the National Fruit Collection, www.nationalfruitcollection.org.uk.